The non-Monsoon of 2019

Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.

It’s been an unusual monsoon season across Arizona this year. After both a wet winter and wet spring—with above normal precipitation amounts all the way into the month of May—things went dry. The North American Monsoon started late this year with the first significant rainfall not arriving until the second half of July. This was unfortunate as the dryness partially contributed to a very damaging wildfire (Museum Fire) burning across portions of the San Francisco Peaks.

Just a few days later, the rains finally arrived. And, then, they stopped again. And it has been that way much of this monsoon season. A few days of rain, then a week or more of dry weather. A normal pattern would have rain falling perhaps four days out of seven for a two-month period. Folks around here have dubbed this monsoon the “nonsoon”.

And, of course, with the lack of moisture and thunderstorms opportunities for photographing storms, heavy rain, lightning, and sunsets has been a challenge. But it only takes one great photograph to make it a successful season. I’m still trying to get that photograph.

Here are some of the more interesting photographs from this “nonsoon monsoon” season.

The Museum Fire burns in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
The Museum Fire burns in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.
A thunderstorm develops above the San Francisco Peaks as seen from the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
A thunderstorm develops above the San Francisco Peaks as seen from the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection develops over the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection develops over the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Convection is reflected in the waters of Marshall Lake.
Convection is reflected in the waters of Marshall Lake.
A growing thunderstorm is reflected in Marshall Lake.
A growing thunderstorm is reflected in Marshall Lake.
The sun sets over Wupatki National Monument.
The sun sets over Wupatki National Monument.
Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.
Beams of light from the setting sun illuminate the landscape near Sedona.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind Upper Lake Mary.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind Upper Lake Mary.
Lightning on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Lightning on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Twilight lightning in Wupatki National Monument.
Twilight lightning in Wupatki National Monument.
Lightning strikes near the confluence of Grand Canyon and Little Colorado River.
Lightning strikes near the confluence of Grand Canyon and Little Colorado River.

Grand Canyon National Park: 100 Views

In celebration of Grand Canyon National Park’s centennial, the Grand Canyon Conservancy has published Grand Canyon National Park: 100 Views.

In celebration of this legacy national park’s centennial, the work of some of the country’s most talented photographers is paired with essays by canyon veteran Scott Thybony in a love letter to an irreplaceable place. Like candles on a birthday cake, 100 breathtaking photographs capture the deep and abiding appeal of Grand Canyon—as Thybony so eloquently writes, its “pure geometry of earth and sky.” This book is truly the “collector’s item” for Grand Canyon National Park’s centennial year!

I’m pleased to note that three of my photographs were selected for inclusion in this book.

Twilight lightning near Grand Canyon.
Twilight lightning near Grand Canyon.

The first image is an example of not giving up. I was packing up my gear to leave Lipan Point and drive home when a small cumulus appeared. I stopped what I was doing and watched it for awhile and realized that it might become a thunderstorm. So I unpacked the gear and set it up again and waited. The sun went down and then the storm started to produce lightning. And I got this shot of lightning exiting from the top of the storm, heading down in the clear and then going through a layer of low clouds before hitting and illuminating the ground.

The following two images were shot the same day. Thunderstorms were slow to develop but there was this interesting band of clouds just above the horizon. I waited until the sun was behind the clouds and the result was these beautiful beams of light and shadow spreading across the canyon.

Beams of light and shadow play across Grand Canyon.
Beams of light and shadow play across Grand Canyon.

Finally, after the sun had set thunderstorms developed across the North Rim of Grand Canyon. There was still plenty of twilight to backlight the storms and to produced some reflected light in the canyon.

Twilight thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Twilight thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.

“Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it, not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.

-John Wesley Powell

Thank you, Mr. Roosevelt and Major Powell.

Arizona Monsoon Clouds—July 2018

Late afternoon sun briefly lights up Cathedral Rock in Sedona.

The North American Monsoon arrived in northern Arizona during the first week of July—which is an average start date. Within just a few days, we quickly transitioned from Extreme Fire Danger to High—and within a week or two—to Moderate.

Summer monsoon season is my second storm chase season—the first is in late spring across the High Plains. Second season is more about lightning, clouds with dramatic scenery, and colors at sunset. This July has been a bit more challenging than other seasons but still successful.

Here are some photographs of storms and storm-related activity during July 2018.

Early stage Cumulonimbus

A pair of developing cumulonimbus as seen from Kachina Wetlands.
A pair of developing cumulonimbus as seen from Kachina Wetlands.

Cumulonimbus over Hart Prairie.Cumulonimbus over Hart Prairie.

Outflow boundaries and arcus clouds

Gust front and arcus clouds advance across Wupatki National Monument.
Gust front and arcus clouds advance across Wupatki National Monument.
Gust front and arcus clouds continue to advance across Wupatki National Monument.
Gust front and arcus clouds continue to advance across Wupatki National Monument.

This complex of storms was moving westward across Wupatki National Monument. I had originally planned to photograph the system from the Doney Mtn. Picnic Area but the system arrived at that location before I did. So I retreated back to US-89 and the entrance to the Monument. Both of these images are panoramas that span the northeast through south. The San Francisco Peaks can be seen at the far right of both images.

Rainbows (and maybe a tornado?)

A rainbow (and possible vortex).
A rainbow (and possible vortex).

As convection approached a rainbow developed and I was busy trying to reset the camera to capture the full bow. Only later, when examing the images, did I notice what might be a vortex bisecting the rainbow. Because I did not see it in real time I cannot say whether there was any rotation. It may just be a random bit of cloud debris.

Lightning

The best part of the thunderstorm season is trying to capture lightning. It’s more than just getting a photograph of lightning—it’s important to get lightning in an interesting location.

Lightning visibile from South Rim of Grand Canyon with Desert Tower in the distance.
Lightning visibile from South Rim of Grand Canyon with Desert Tower in the distance.
Lightning over the Painted Desert as seen from South Rim of Grand Canyon.
Lightning over the Painted Desert as seen from South Rim of Grand Canyon.
Lightning over the Painted Desert.
Lightning over the Painted Desert.
A composite of four images showing multiple lightning strikes on the San Francisco Peaks. These storms dropped almost 6 inches of rain in under 3 hours.
A composite of four images showing multiple lightning strikes on the San Francisco Peaks. These storms dropped almost 6 inches of rain in under 3 hours.

Menacing thunderstorms

Sometimes I chase storms—other times they chase me. We were mountain biking on Observatory Mesa when this thunderstorm developed and enveloped the San Francisco Peaks. It was definitely time to turn around.

A thunderstorms envelopes the San Francisco Peaks.
A thunderstorms envelopes the San Francisco Peaks.

Sunset after the storm

And, of course, sunset after the storms can be pretty amazing,

Sunset over Grand Canyon as seen from Lipan Point.
Sunset over Grand Canyon as seen from Lipan Point.
A distant thunderstorm is backlit by the setting sun at Grand Canyon.
A distant thunderstorm is backlit by the setting sun at Grand Canyon.
Late afternoon sun briefly lights up Cathedral Rock in Sedona.
Late afternoon sun briefly lights up Cathedral Rock in Sedona.
Dark skies behind Cathedral Rock.
Dark skies behind Cathedral Rock.
The setting sun lights up the clouds as shadows race up the face of Cathedral Rock.
The setting sun lights up the clouds as shadows race up the face of Cathedral Rock.

Reflections

Reflections in pools of water can produce interesting images. Several days of heavy rain resulted in ponds of water at Crescent Moon Picnic Area.

The setting sun illuminates Cathedral Rock which is reflected in a small pond.
The setting sun illuminates Cathedral Rock which is reflected in a small pond.

Rainfall amounts

As is typical, rainfall amounts can vary widely over even just a few miles. Here is a map showing the rain gauge amounts for July on the east side of the San Francisco Peaks southward through Flagstaff and beyond. Amounts range from 2.5 to 14.5 inches.

Rain gauge totals for July 2018.
Rain gauge totals for July 2018.

August continues to bring thunderstorms, lightning, and flooding to northern Arizona.

Sunset and Lightning at Grand Canyon

The other day provided a good opportunity to photograph both lightning from thunderstorms and sunset at Grand Canyon. Satellite imagery from the new GOES-16 satellite indicated that skies remained clear across western Arizona as well as southern Nevada and California. This would allow the setting sun to appear below the cloud deck from the thunderstorms and—maybe—create a great sunset with the clouds glowing from below as the sun approached the horizon.

GOES-16 visible satellite imagery.
GOES-16 visible satellite imagery.

Close, but it didn’t quite happen that way. The clouds never took on that beautiful glow. On the other hand, an abundance of monsoon moisture in the lower atmosphere allowed the sun to create beams of light and shadow through the depths of the canyon. This was at its best when the sun was briefly obscured by some mid-level clouds creating some shadows at my location—but with sunlight streaming into the canyon below.

Beams of light and shadow play across Grand Canyon.
Beams of light and shadow play across Grand Canyon.

After the sun had dropped below the horizon the beams were gone, of course, but there was still color in the western sky.

Twilight colors at Grand Canyon.
Twilight colors at Grand Canyon.

The earlier thunderstorms over the area had dissipated but new storms developed about 50 km to my west. This distance meant the visible bolts were fairly small. I wanted big bolts dropping into the canyon near me. What we want and what we get…well, you know.

The radar image shows my location (circle) and the storms to the northwest.

Twilight thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Twilight thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Evening thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.
Evening thunderstorms and lightning over Grand Canyon.

The lightning images are composites of multiple photographs taken over a period of several minutes. The shutter was left open for 15s for each photograph. Some had multiple lightning bolts while others were dark. Even though it was almost 90 minutes after sunset the photographs were still able to pick up twilight colors on the western horizon.

All in all, an illuminating evening (bad pun intended).